WASHINGTON — Raising prospects for a major election-year ruling, the Obama administration launched its Supreme Court defense of its landmark health care overhaul Wednesday, appealing what it called a "fundamentally flawed" appeals court decision that declared the law's central provision unconstitutional.
Destined from the start for a high court showdown, the health care law affecting virtually every American seems sure to figure prominently in President Barack Obama's campaign for re-election next year. Republican contenders are already assailing it in virtually every debate and speech.
The administration formally appealed a ruling by the federal appeals court in Atlanta that struck down the law's core requirement that individuals buy health insurance or pay a penalty beginning in 2014.
At the same time, however, the winners in that appellate case, 26 states and the National Federation of Independent Business, also asked for high court review Wednesday, saying the entire law, and not just the individual insurance mandate, should be struck down.
The Supreme Court almost always weighs in when a lower court has struck down all or part of a federal law, to say nothing of one that aims to extend insurance coverage to more than 30 million Americans.
The bigger question had been the timing. The administration's filing makes it more likely that the case will be heard and decided in the term that begins next week.
Repeating arguments it has made in courts across the country in response to many challenges to the law, the administration said Congress was well within its constitutional power to enact the insurance requirement.
Disagreeing with that, the 26 states and business group said in their filings that the justices should act before the 2012 presidential election because of uncertainty over costs and requirements.
On the issue of timing, their cause got an unexpected boost from retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who said voters would be better off if they knew the law's fate law before casting their ballots next year.
The 91-year-old Stevens said in an Associated Press interview that the justices would not shy away from deciding the case in the middle of a presidential campaign and would be doing the country a service. "It would be better to have that known about than be speculated as a part of the political argument," Stevens said in his Supreme Court office overlooking the Capitol.
Though the Atlanta appeals court struck down the individual insurance requirement, it upheld the rest of the law. The states and the business group say that would still impose huge new costs.
In another challenge to the same law, the federal appeals court in Cincinnati sided with the administration. In a separate Supreme Court filing Tuesday night, the Obama administration said it does not appear necessary to grant review of the Cincinnati case and the government added that consolidating the two cases could complicate the presentation of arguments "without a sufficient corresponding benefit."
The law would extend health coverage mainly through subsidies to purchase private insurance and an expansion of Medicaid. The states object to the Medicaid expansion and a provision forcing them to cover their employees' health care at a level set by the government.
The individual insurance mandate "indisputably served as the centerpiece of the delicate compromise that produced" the law, according to the states, with Florida taking the lead.
The administration said in the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the law's changes in the insurance market, including requiring insurers to cover people without regard for pre-existing health conditions, would not work without the participation mandate.
The insurance requirement is intended to force healthier people who might otherwise forgo insurance into the pool of insured, helping to reduce private insurers' financial risk.
Both appeals stressed the importance of resolving the overhaul's constitutionality as soon as possible, which under normal court procedures would be by June 2012.
While a decision in that time frame would come in the midst of a heated presidential campaign, the NFIB said it is more important to resolve uncertainty about costs and requirements than drag out consideration into 2013 or beyond.
"When you talk to our members and other small-business owners about what is the biggest problem they're facing, they say uncertainty," said Karen Harned, executive director of the NFIB's legal division. "When you ask what, one of first answers is the health care law."
Stevens, who retired last year, said his former colleagues would not be affected by the potential impact of their decision on Obama's re-election chances.
"They'll decide it on the law. I'm totally convinced of that," he said.
Obama appointed Stevens' successor, Elena Kagan.
Stevens said that if he still had a vote on the court on timing, he would cast it in favor of hearing the case sooner rather than later. He would not say how he would vote on the issue of the law's constitutionality, although he said the court's 6-3 decision in a 2005 case involving medical marijuana seems to lend support to the administration's defense of the law.
Stevens wrote the opinion that held that the Constitution allows federal regulation of homegrown marijuana as interstate commerce. A central dispute in the health care case is over Congress's power under the Constitution's commerce clause to mandate the purchase of health insurance.
In addition to the competing rulings on the law's validity, a federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., ruled that it was premature to decide the law's constitutionality. Citing a federal law aimed at preventing lawsuits from tying up tax collection, that court held that a definitive ruling could come only after taxpayers begin paying the penalty for not purchasing insurance.
The administration suggested that the Supreme Court should consider that issue because of the appellate ruling.
The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., also heard arguments in yet another lawsuit against the overhaul last week. That court has no timetable for its decision.
The other states aligned with Florida are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
___Follow Mark Sherman on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/shermancourt